We are, at this point, only fractionally done with watching Bob Bradley put together the roster for LAFC's debut season. Right now there are two DPs, a few defenders, a young-but-talented goalkeeper, and tons of expectations. I can look at this nascent group and talk myself into an eventual 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-5-2 (which might be the best bet given Bradley's past and Carlos Vela's future).
Let's take a quick look:
Vela is, understandably, the headliner here. He can and has played both as a second forward and an inverted left winger in his career, which is why I can toggle in my head between a front three and a pure, forward pairing. The Mexican international has done both, and in either look he should complement newly signed Uruguayan young DP Diego Rossi fairly well.
Add in 20-year-old Ghanaian Latif Blessing, and there's your argument for the 4-3-3, right? Blessing, like Vela, can play inverted on the wing or as a second forward, and the 4-3-3 pretty naturally gets all that attacking talent onto the field at the same time.
Here's the problem: Vela doesn't like to defend and Blessing doesn't know how to, and it's easier to hide a second forward defensively than it is to hide a winger. If I'm an opposing coach and I see Vela playing underneath Rossi, I think "uh oh." If I see him on the wing, I think "we're going to build through our left side and make his life miserable."
Playing with a forward pairing might mean less pure attacking talent on the field, but it might also make for a more stable front-to-back structure. Blessing, Marco Ureña and Rodrigo Pacheco look to me like back-up options.
Hard to judge at this point since LAFC have made no big-name midfield acquisitions, and because Bradley has been so flexible with regard to formations and approaches over the course of his managerial career.
I keep coming back to three things, though:
- LAFC have been linked to pure central playmakers – including Sacha Kljestan – in recent days
- Right back Omar Gaber might actually be better at right wingback
- The natural No. 1 SuperDraft pick is probably Stanford CB Tomas Hilliard-Arce
If they get Kljestan, they slot him into the hole just underneath Vela and Rossi, and there you have LAFC's answer to the three-headed monster of an attack that Toronto FC used to win the domestic treble this season. Gaber and *insert left wingback acquisition here* can push up to provide support as the game flow allows, but even if they're pinned deep, that attacking three is going to be good enough to make most MLS defenses just a little bit shaky.
Kljestan is nearing the end of his run, but he's led the league in assists two straight seasons and playing in a 5-man midfield would allow for an extra layer of protection behind him. And yes, getting Kljestan or a different TAM-level playmaker would allow LAFC to spend their third DP slot on a defensive midfielder, and if you think that's dumb then you haven't noticed who's won the last three MLS Cups. My guess is that Bradley and John Thorrington are out there searching for the next Guido Pizarro. Get that guy and a TAM-level No. 8, and LAFC's midfield would sing.
The above could theoretically work in a 4-4-2 diamond as well, though that's trickier to play right out of the gate. Bear in mind, of course, that Bradley's double-winning 1998 Chicago Fire team played primarily out of a 3-5-2.
They've got one former Defender of the Year (Laurent Ciman won it in 2015), and one guy who's good enough to be a future Defender of the Year (Walker Zimmerman finished fourth in 2016 before having a miserable 2017 season). They're already best friends on Twitter:
me too but do not worry ... we will work very hard to become the best central defense of the league and to have a lot of fun— Laurent Ciman (@LaurentCiman23) December 13, 2017
You can play them together in any sort of back four, and that would make sense. But anyone who's watched Hilliard-Arce play – and repeatedly win titles – can see him walking straight into an MLS lineup. To do that with LAFC there would need to be a back three (or five), with him flanking Ciman on one side and Zimmerman on the other.
Either way there will need to be further investment in central defensive depth and a couple of left-sided players. Those don't come cheap, and one of the more amusing moments of this week was when LAFC picked up two of them in the expansion draft, then flipped 'em both for Ciman. Either of Raheem Edwards or Jukka Raitala would've been a lovely fit.
We'll have a better sense of this once we see where LAFC spend their money over the next month, and when we see who they pick No. 1 in the SuperDraft. If it's Hilliard-Arce, I'm going to start betting heavily on a 3-man backline in downtown LA.
Tyler Miller's not a future national team player, I don't think. But I can see him as a long-time starter in MLS given his talent and reports out of Seattle about his work ethic.
Understand that this might not work out – Miller is not a proven No. 1 at this level, and LAFC will no doubt spend the first part of training camp seriously evaluating him both on the field and off. But of all the 'keepers who were exposed in the expansion draft, he probably made the most sense to make a long-term bet upon (especially if they knew they were adding a veteran in Ciman to play in front of him).
More moves to come, of course. It's a long offseason, and what's conventional wisdom one day can change drastically the next.